Small traffic fines can lead to big problems for some Californians

Fees turn a $100 infraction into a $500 ticket. If it’s unpaid, extra penalties are tacked on.
Fees turn a $100 infraction into a $500 ticket. If it’s unpaid, extra penalties are tacked on. Sacramento Bee file

Christina Charles acknowledges she broke the law.

Between 2011 and 2012, Charles improperly stopped at a stop sign. She drove with a missing license plate and a taillight out.

Her license was suspended when she couldn’t pay for the tickets and failed to appear in court. Charles also was stopped for driving on the suspended license and without car insurance.

She eventually piled up $6,000 in debt.

Well over 4 million Californians have had their licenses revoked because they failed to pay traffic fines or appear in court, DMV records show. Annual suspensions rose during the recession as the cost of traffic-related citations increased.

A $100 ticket now can cost about $500 after fees and assessments, increasing to more than $800 if the driver misses an initial deadline to pay or appear.

“It’s definitely a hardship,” said Charles, 56, of San Francisco, who is disabled and receives government aid. “If you break a law, you should pay the penalty. And I know you shouldn’t be driving on a suspended. But the fees are just out of this world. There has got to be better ways to get your license back.”

Legal aid and civil rights groups have begun pressing a case that the violations disproportionately affect the poor and minorities, sparking a national conversation.

Comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” recently devoted 18 minutes to the ill effects of municipal violations, including private companies that add on more of their own fees. Oliver rebroadcast news clips describing how payment plans can drive debtors deeper in arrears: In Illinois, they are charged 30 percent for falling behind. Paying in installments costs an extra $100 in New Orleans. Losing a driver’s license can make it difficult to get to work.

“You need them to pay their fine, but you’re taking away their means of paying it,” Oliver said.

In California, Sen Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, has introduced a bill to reduce the number of suspended driver’s licenses by giving residents who were penalized for nonviolent offenses a way to restore their driving privileges. Amnesty would be provided on a sliding scale based on a motorist’s ability to pay.

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing his own 18-month amnesty program allowing delinquent drivers to halve their debt if they agree to pay the amount in full.

California’s rising traffic fines were the subject of debate amid the economic recession as legislators raised total penalties by expanding or adding on new assessments. Four years ago, with the state strapped for cash, then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg described the growing traffic penalties as “one of the patches that we’ve relied upon to avoid deeper cuts” to state programs.

“It’s not the way to sustain important public investments,” Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said at the time. “At some point, it’s like getting blood out of a turnip. You can only squeeze so hard.”

About 4.73 million California licenses have been suspended since 2006 after motorists failed to pay or appear in court, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In that time, just under 82,000 were reinstated.

Last week, legal aid and civil rights groups released an analysis of California’s traffic court system. The report, by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, followed a U.S. Justice Department report on Ferguson, Mo., which found that the city’s financially motivated policies led to discrimination and suspicious activity by law enforcement.

Chart showing how assessments and fees escalate fines 

While the context may be different in California, the new report states, “many of the practices are chillingly similar,” including the use of license suspensions as a tool to collect unpaid debt.

The report also spelled out the consequences of an unpaid citation for those of limited means. When the deadline to pay or appear in court is missed, the driver’s license is suspended, and an extra $300 civil assessment is added to the fine.

Mike Herald of the Western Center said in most counties it takes a full payment to contest the ticket in writing and schedule a court hearing.

“So, effectively the courthouse doors are closed to people who can’t afford it,” he said.

In New Jersey, a survey of low-income drivers with suspended licenses found that 42 percent lost their jobs as a result and less than one-half were able to find new jobs, with 88 percent experiencing a loss of income.

Hertzberg said he plans to focus on how the judicial branch interfaces with the public.

“Small-claims court. Traffic court. Driver’s licenses,” Hertzberg said. “All of these kinds of issues, people don’t normally focus on because there are no contributors. There are no big voters. But it’s one of the biggest areas where people have the greatest amount of frustration with government.”

Governments have made “horrible mistakes” to raise money, he said. “We add these fees and we don’t understand how it affects ordinary folks.”

Under Hertzberg’s Senate Bill 405, beginning Jan. 1, 2016, and lasting two years, counties could establish their own amnesty programs and accept fines or bail due on or before Jan. 1, 2013, on sliding scale, with specific guidelines adopted by the state’s Judicial Council.

Everyone whose income exceeds 200 percent of the federal poverty level – more than $23,540 for an individual and $48,500 for a family of four – would pay 80 percent of the fine or bail.

The government would accept 50 percent of the penalty for people who exceed 150 percent but make less than 200 percent. Those below 150 percent of the threshold – $17,655 for a single person and $36,375 for a family of four – could pay 20 percent of what they owe.

Lawrence J. McQuillan, a senior fellow and director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute, said he worries that using a sliding scale could cause localities to make up for their losses by raising more revenue from higher earners. They also could turn more activities into criminal offenses.

“That hurts the poor and the wealthy when you are criminalizing even more behaviors that shouldn’t be,” McQuillan said.

Brown’s traffic amnesty proposal is designed to close funding shortfalls in accounts used to train law enforcement.

Teresa Ruano, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Council of California, cast some early doubts on the governor’s proposal, noting that the last amnesty effort in 2012 netted only about $12.3 million over its six months. “The past amnesty program we think is instructive,” Ruano said.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the administration continues to work closely with lawmakers to address any issues.

Charles, the motorist from San Francisco, said she was on an installment plan, paying $100 a month for three years, and still officials would not lift the suspension, costing her the chance of obtaining work.

A government clerk helped connect her with the lawyers’ committee. They petitioned the court, and her license was restored. She said she still owes $4,500.

Charles said she plans to take a job with Alemany Farm, transporting produce to the elderly, maintaining the irrigation system and shuttling waste.

“The thing about it is I am now able to get the job,” she said.

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

Proposed ticket amnesty

Under Senate Bill 405, reduced payments would be accepted to resolve outstanding traffic fines. Individuals would pay:

▪  Eighty percent if the person’s income exceeds 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

▪  Fifty percent if the person’s income is above 150 percent and no higher than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

▪  Twenty percent if the person has income that is no more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.